Sometimes it’s hard to explain things, and sometimes we lack the words, perspective, or experience to explain something even though we understand it and empathize with it. On this month’s journey into the rabbit hole, I explore racial division through cinema, literature, journalism and photography. And uncover some nuances that have helped further my understanding and improve my communication skills.
Film I’m Studying
I Am Not Your Negro fully realizes its director’s conviction. Raoul Peck set out to bring forward a voice from another era—a voice he felt we now lacked and desperately needed. After working with many writers, he feared the project wasn’t going anywhere. But then he was handed an unfinished manuscript by the James Baldwin Estate. It was the novel Baldwin was working on before dying of cancer in 1987. Its working title was Remember This House, and it contained 30 pages of recollections about his friends—civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. Suddenly, Peck’s film was upon him.
Sometimes people say I am an activist, I say no, I am a citizen, I take seriously the rights that I have, I take seriously my responsibility. I would love to be able to make horror movies without having to think, like Scary Movie 1,2,3,4,5, or 6, or Toy Story. But I take responsibility. I know the price we pay. I know the price my ancestors paid. I know the price young men like Medgar Evers, young men like Martin Luther King Jr., young men like Malcolm X, the price they paid, the price their kids paid, their whole family paid. How can we just say… well… we can just be happy and profit from whatever is going on? It’s my responsibility. The right to vote—people died for that. I know the price of my ancestors. – Transcribed from a special features Interview of Raoul Peck
And thus, a symphony ensues. Baldwin with his voice and pen, And Peck orchestrating a tale of yesterday amongst a tale of today.
Archived media from the civil rights era—interviews, stills, tv shows, and movie clips—build up the lion’s share of the movie. But to connect the history with what is happening today, Peck included stills and footage from modern-day protests and tragedies and some reality tv show clips. But it was—in good taste—kept to a minimum, not to distract from the actual history. And in the end, there are some very captivating modern-day video portraits.
Additionally, there isn’t a single contemporary interview in the film—scarce these days when it comes to documentaries. But the film is not without its genre tropes. Sequences with atmospheric b-roll garnish the film—mostly scenery as seen out the windows of a driving car. The footage was edited with an astute poetic sensibility and Samuel L. Jackson’s soft voice narration to invoke a sense of—this is James Baldwin driving around pondering the heavy themes of heartbreak that permeated the souls of blacks and empathizers throughout the era.
What touches me the most is the film’s embodied awareness. An awareness I was first exposed to in my late teens, thanks to some socially responsible friends. But this awareness did not come along with a good set of communication skills. And it was only the beginning of an ongoing journey—digging myself out of a deep cavernous pit flooded with naiveté. As featured in this film from a 1968 excerpt of The Dick Cavett Show, here are some words from James Baldwin that have helped me tweak my communication skills and understanding in regards to race.
I don’t know what white people in this country feel. I can only include what they feel by the state of their institution. I don’t know if white Christians hate negroes or not, but I know that we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church which is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal to me about a Christian nation. It means that I can’t afford to trust most white Christians and certainly cannot trust the Christian church. I don’t know whether Labor Unions and their bosses really hate me. That doesn’t matter, but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know if the real-estate lobbyists have anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobbyists keep me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know about the textbooks I have to give my children to read and the schools we have to go to. Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my life, my woman, my assistant, my children on some idealism that you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen. – James Baldwin
Credits and Specs
Directed by Raoul Peck
Produced by Rémi Grellety, Hébert Peck, Raoul Peck
Written by James Baldwin, Raoul Peck
Based on James Baldwin’s unfinished novel, Remember this house.
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr.
Music By Alexei Aigui
Cinematography by Henry Adebonojo, Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross
Edited by Alexandra Strauss
Production Company: Velvet Film
Film Festival Release: October 2016
Running Time: 1hr 33min
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Printed Film Format: Digital (Digital Cinema Package DCP)
Reported Budget: 1m
Book I’m Reading
Go Tell It On The Mountain–published in 1953—is James Baldwin’s first novel. The Modern Library and Time Magazine both list the book amongst their top 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. The book is semi-autobiographical, leaning heavily on Baldwin’s experience with an abusive stepfather—a sensationalist preacher. And ending on a depiction of his own “awakening” at the age of 14 when he became a preacher.
Baldwin scholars suggest that he invented his own way of writing and speaking that stemmed from his years as a child preacher. “He remained a natural, if somewhat reluctant, performer — a master of the heavy sigh, the raised eyebrow, and the rhetorical flourish.”
When you are born a black man in this country, you need to read Baldwin. Without question, no if or [about it], you need to read [him]. Whatever you do with it later, that is another question. It’s like learning how to read. That’s how essential it is.
For me, that is what he did. He taught me how to read. He taught me how to read my life. He taught me how to construct my life. He taught me how to make decisions about my life. So once you have that kind of powerful thinking, you need to put it in the hand of every single child in this country.
Obviously, I am not black. But, I thought reading Baldwin for myself would help me to garner understanding. And after having an undeniable emotional response to the poeticism in Baldwin’s words as featured in I Am Not Your Negro, I was eager to read them first hand in one of his books. So why not start with his first. Here is an excerpt:
She looked out into the quiet, sunny streets, and for the first time in her life, she hated it all—the white city, the white world. She could not that day, think of one decent white person in the whole world. She sat there, and she hoped that one day God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility, and make them know that black boys and black girls, who they treated with such condescension, such disdain, and such good humor, had hearts like human beings, too, more human hearts than theirs.
Photographer that inspires me
James Karales observed his college roommate sweating over chemical trays in a darkroom and was inspired to change his major to photography. He graduated in 1955. And after spending two years under the tutelage of W. Eugene Smith at the Magnum Photo Agency, he set his sights on the working class in Rendville, Ohio, for his first photo essay. In its earlier years, Rendville was one of the few towns in the US to allow for workplace integration and was a stop on the underground railroad. His essay got noticed, and in 1960, Look Magazine hired him to cover the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. His access to key movement figures like Martin Luther King Jr. resulted in an incredibly intimate body of work, charged—by his compositions and choice moments—with undeniable emotional clarity.
Article I am enjoying
Revisiting an anti-Latino past is an article written by Gustavo Arellano for the Los Angeles Times. It’s an honest reflection of the newspaper’s historical racism and how it has changed. What strikes me the most is how the newspaper is holding itself accountable with acute self-examination and commitment. Here is an excerpt:
The [Latin] elites were seen as cultured but good people whose best days were past. The rest were seen as halfbreeds and shiftless.” The dichotomy was there from the start. An 1883 story about northern Mexico’s “greasers” with the subhead “What They Are and How They Live” strove to distinguish for readers the difference between Mexicans with mixed heritage and those who were supposedly of pure Spanish blood. The latter were described as “bright, active and intelligent.” The Times cemented this myth in historical remembrances, serialized fiction, and news stories about society events where L.A.’s new white ruling class—including the Chandlers—dressed as the dons and señoritas of yore. Meanwhile, the city’s actual Mexican residents were written about largely in crime stories or what Gutierrez called “zoo pieces” — stories about Latinos not as individuals but as members of an ethnic group with little chance of being more than that.
Quote I am pondering
What I am trying to say to this country, to us, is that we must know this, we must realize this, that no other country in the world has been so fat and so sleek and so safe and so happy and so irresponsible and so dead, no other country can afford to dream of a Plymouth and a wife and a house with a white picket fence and the children growing up safely to go to college and to become executives, then to marry and have the Plymouth and house and so forth. A great many people do not live this way and cannot imagine it and do not know that when we talk about democracy that this is what we mean. – James Baldwin